BATANG MINDANAW: Stories True Heroes Tell Themselves

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/10 January) – We live in the stories we tell.

I live mine in make believe – daydreaming has always been my hobby of choice. I would always take every chance to shift my attention to somewhere out-of-this-word.

How I tell myself stories is rather childish to the point of cute. As with the egocentrism of a toddler, I would always be the protagonist. I would play a certain, sometimes-unconventional role. Doctor, fireman, soldier. Magician, jeepney driver, hermit, snake-charmer. More recently, as a psychologist (about time I did). The possibilities are always asymptotic to infinite.

They were utopian, the roles that I played. All my daydream-interactions were always engineered around a simple plot: Enter myself, enter the adventure, enter several characters (their distress is optional), and let the story flow. How the stories ended didn’t matter. I always wanted to leave it all at the climax; I was never good with endings, happy or not.

For all the Apollonian qualities I played in the stories I lulled myself to daydream land, I never referred to myself as a hero. Not even a superhero; as a child you always had one to look up to. So if I couldn’t finish an adventure due to the limitations of my role, enter Batman.

Now I always wonder how heroes live in the heroic stories they tell themselves.

Three weeks ago I journeyed to Cagayan de Oro City to help out in the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing operations made available for Typhoon Sendong survivors. There, with a little stroke of accidental luck, I met a hero who never knew he was one. I would encounter a couple more in as many days, out of the dozen or so flood-affected CDO residents spread across three evacuation centers.

Two weeks and three crude narratives of profound heroic human experience amid disaster, I found the answer to my question. This is how my heroes live in the stories they themselves tell.

They start out with meditative silence, throwing their gazes forward and aimlessly, presumably into an angry sea of difficult memories. Unlike the frenzied souls in the evacuation centers who are frantically scraping for every relief good they can amass, these individuals stand out in strange self-isolation. To approach them is a dare; to get them talking is a game of roulette. You’ll never know what you’re going to get. If you dare and succeed at making him agree to tell you his story, you would need to prepare to fall to the ground like a heavyweight stone.

(Hero) Number One taught me this; the first few statements he let go were shaped in the roughest mold humanity will ever invent. He guided me through a maze of events back to the night of the flooding. The story was framed with bitter resentment, and as his spirits came crashing to the ground, mine too plummeted with his.

Number One is the king of the little streets. Unmarried at 42, the sikad driver in him knew better than to rush out to the streets when the water level was rising fast. So instead of going out of the door and away, he pierced the ceiling and made a haven out of the roof space. There, one by one in an enforcing, ask-questions-later fashion, he arranged his nephews and nieces.

The roof was for his siblings and his old parents also. With only the sky stopping their ascent and the flood below – now a cocktail of water, mud, and everything else imaginable – there was nowhere else to go. All there was left to do was to wait in precarious trepidation for something to break that would spell salvation or tragedy… until Number One broke the ice with something crazy and brilliant at the same time.

Seeing his brother’s “collection” of used plastic water bottles tethered and floating a few meters close to the roof, Number One jumped into the flood and grabbed them. He threw them back to the roof before swimming back and up to his family. His brothers thought he was crazy as Number One set about fashioning the plastic bottles into makeshift flotation devices for the kids. He made them put these on and asked them to pray like there was no tomorrow, just in case the house gave up the fight against the flood.

Thankfully, the house stood strong. The ingenious flotation device was never used but Number One’s efforts were never in vain. At any time, fate could have turned a different way and like me Number One was playing a game of roulette. He could never be so sure of what he was about to get, but he tried to be most ready using what Fate presented.

Number Two was equally good at gambling and, at 11 years old, only God knows what he’s going to become in two to three decade’s time. I saw him once, on my second visit to Cagayan de Oro post-Christmas, dominating a coin-game against other kids of his age. A week before that, he was all over the evacuation center – lining up for relief goods, and playing and mingling with other kids.

It was a colleague from Xavier University, Ms. Carol Landa, who found him as I did with Number One – dazed in his own silence. Number Two apparently wasn’t a tough nut to crack; perhaps the kid was too excited to tell his story to Ms. Carol. When I heard his story, I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet him. He was then fast becoming a cult hero among the psychosocial volunteers at the evacuation center.

This is how heroes live in their stories: always in context. Whereas Number One always referred to the bitterness of the experience, it was all play for Number Two. With animation and enthusiasm, he relates how the water was coming in fast and giving him chase. So he gave his little sister Bunday a piggy back ride to higher, safer ground. Round two, and this time with younger brother Ramon who was bigger and heavier just as the floodwater was getting more unforgiving. He reunites Ramon with Bunday, beating the flood by inches this time around.

The third time he tried, presumably to come and see what he could do to help his mother who was still at home then, the waters won over him. He got slammed against a hard structure, ribs first, earning for him a wound even most adults would not like to have. But this is where the story turns the corner towards becoming epic.

How he survived is a story that is provocative and funny. Wounded and tired, he found the neighbor’s big black pig floating around in the flood. He grabbed onto the poor animal, and waited to see where the current would take him. The kid who gave a piggy back ride to two of his siblings was now the one getting a piggy back ride from no less than a real pig.

Resourcefulness is a gift, it seems; where the stakes are high, the hero prevails by outplaying his Fate. Think of the Trojan Horse, or Number Two’s friendly pig.

Think of a coconut tree.

Recent news reports relate to a policeman in Iligan who was commended for his gallantry by organizing his family and neighbors atop an aged mango tree as the flooding ensued. Without any intent to belittle that policeman’s efforts – he was a hero, too – Number Three’s story seems to me far more compelling and awe-inspiring. In fact, his story renders the mango tree version a little too easy.

I had found Number Three sitting under the shade of a coconut tree just outside the Macasandig Covered Court, looking at the medical personnel from Sarangani who had come a long way to bring relief both in the form or material goods and free medical services. I greeted Number Three and asked if I could sit beside him. His simple nod meant yes.

He had just had his wounds treated by the doctors; I looked down and saw how both his legs have become an abstract art form of bandages and Betadine overlaying a hairy canvass now clean from any traces of mud.

Number Three is rather straightforward. He doesn’t hover in circles around his thoughts and would tend to focus on facts alone. I had to butt in several times to ask him for some elaboration which he would gladly provide.

It was past midnight when things had started looking ugly, as Number Three relates. Fifty-two years old means that by now he’s had quite a number of run-ins with flooding incidents, but what used to be a routine rise in water levels turned alarming given the rate that it was going. In ten minutes, the floodwaters rose to the chest level of an adult. Thirty minutes later, one-storey structures were underwater. A full hour or so and the community of Tambo, Macasandig was now composed of hundreds of metallic islets, with families fighting for their lives on top of them. Wet and cold, and without rescuers coming to their aid, the certainty of survival looked bleak.

Number Three knew that he had to do something fast. He knew his house wouldn’t be able to withstand the pressure of the flood. His islet was about to follow the footsteps of Atlantis.

This is how that coconut tree comes into his story. Seeing the lonely plant (he says that coconut tree was the only form of foliage in the residential housing community), Number Three conceived of a risky plan. About 20 of his family members and neighbors were to get intimate with that tree, clinging onto it until the waters subsided. The kids had to rest atop the leaves, the ladies positioned a step below them. The men had to occupy the part closest to the flood. Talk about systematic compartmentalization.

And if you heard Number Three speak, it was as if what he did was routine. Nothing out of the ordinary.

What he taught me was something very remarkable: the heroes in us live in their stories without hint of drama. Their memories, the way I see it, aren’t a theater of dreams where utopia resides. It’s the lowlight reel of being human, actually. There’s nothing cinematic about their recollections. Enter the hero who fights the situation Fate put him in and lives on to tell his tale as if it he didn’t care. Nothing seems to matter; except the fact that our hero finished the job, no matter how beautiful or ugly it was done.

I had to come in and salvage the moment before it ran away without being granted some meaning. The easiest albeit playful and slightly silly way to do this was by asking how the tree was doing then after the heavy flood.

It was December 20, 2011. Three days after the calamity, four days before Christmas when the family came back to the community to see what was left of their home. Looking at the tree, Number Three was amazed at how high they got atop the tree during the flood. He made sure the kids marked how high they were up there, while the wife talked to the plant to express her deep gratitude.

Number Three and I ended our conversation in rhetoric; in a very different way the story unfolded itself. In the spirit of the season, we greeted each other a merry Christmas. And in a moment of epiphany, it was my turn to point out something to him about the tree. That tree, I said, is a fitting Christmas tree. Number Three smiled in agreement before we parted ways.

This is how heroes live in the stories they tell themselves and the few lucky ones who are given the chance to hear the narratives of their greatness. Heroes are no more special than any of us. They share the same worldly sentiments we have to hurdle as human beings.

The heroes I met in CDO aren’t occupational heroes – although Number Three who works as a security guard can be considered as one – they do not make a living out of saving people. They are instead heroes of the moment; one-hit-wonders who will remain as wonders until reality hits them hard and death stares them in the eyes once more. It is not until the next powerful crisis that we can say whether they will remain as heroes or not.

Needless to say, they show to us that we can be heroes too in our own little ways. This is how heroes live in their stories; always in context. Number Two remained a kid all throughout. He didn’t outgrow himself just to produce a magical moment. He just did what he could, and that is all that mattered.

Heroes, like all of us, are never detached from the stories we tell to ourselves. We live these stories out the way children eventually suit up for the roles they’ve always dreamed of playing. We re-enact these stories as if by a script we know by heart but never by mind.

The afternoons I spent in Cagayan de Oro City from December 21 to 29 were always beautiful, the sunsets always special. The light shines through the city in a different way than what I am used to seeing in Davao. Unlike my hometown – where light dims fast and easy as Mt. Apo engulfs the afternoon sun, casting a big shadow as far east as it can cover – Cagayan de Oro has eyes to the west, without having to hurdle a lot of heights. The city remains golden longer into the day, and memories gradually fade into the night at an agonizing pace.

Like the light, the narratives of CDO will take longer to slowly fade out into the realm of the shadows, in a languid one-way train bound for the forgotten. They are the narratives that reach out to our greatest fears, dogged survival, and fanciful hopes.

These are the narratives that bridge us to the ideal; the heroes that live in them are in themselves human. But they are different in a way. They are, in these stories, divine, eternal, and consecrated.

Forever in character. Once a hero, always a hero.

(Randolph R. Reserva is an AB Psychology senior at the Ateneo de Davao University.)